Hello everyone! In anticipation of Mach 1 Day – my personal celebration of Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier on October 14, 1947 as I discussed in last year’s post: “The Spinning Starfighter of Southern California” – I have another account from the aviation archives to share with you. It also pertains to the core of elite test pilots who put experimental aircraft through their paces for the United States Military before they were literally cleared for takeoff in real-world scenarios. In the spirit of pushing the envelope both figuratively and physically, I want to look at the fastest flyer in the sky that stays in this confines of this world, a plane that was built to fly higher than any before: the SR-71 Blackbird.
The SR-71 was born from the tensions of the Cold War. The US and USSR were constantly attempting to keep tabs on one another and one way the Americans excelled at was through strategic reconnaissance via high altitude aircraft. Strategic reconnaissance is what the SR in SR-71 stands for, but it was far from the first spy plane used by the USA. The go-to spy plane during this aerial era for the longest time was the U-2, which was equally great at taking pictures over Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cuba as it was at inspiring Irish rockers looking for a name for their band. Newer models of the U-2 are still used by the US today making it one of the longest serving planes in US history, but their brightest – and darkest – era was during the icy standoff with the Soviets. Probably the most well-known moment in non-Bono U-2 history is the 1960 U-2 Incident. Francis Gary Powers, a pilot for the CIA, was flying high in Soviet airspace in a U-2 when he was shot down, captured, and taken prisoner. This led to the spy prisoner exchange at the heart of the latest Steven Spielberg movie, Bridge of Spies, to be released later this week, and not to be confused with Robin Trower’s terrific album Bridge of Sighs. Damn, “Too Rolling Stoned” is a good song.
Incidents like this made the US realize it needed a better plane to traverse such hostile airspace, lest this event be repeated. Fortunately, Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs facility, named Skunk Works (yep, it’s even got this cute little logo) was up to the task. They are the original designers of the U-2 and later created other famous stealth planes like the F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, and the SR-71. Nicknamed the Blackbird due to its black finish, which is not only for nighttime camouflage, but for purposes of releasing heat from the aircraft. Much of this heat comes from the high speeds the Blackbird can reach, which can cause the craft to exceed 500°F (260°C)! These literally blazing speeds are achieved thanks to the two massive Pratt & Whitney J58 engines that propel the plane to beyond Mach 3. The afterburners are equipped to handle temperatures of over 3200°F. Look at this mutha fucka in action! You can see the shockwaves in the flames!
The Blackbird is spy plane built for two. There are two cockpits set up to accommodate two personnel in tandem with the front for the pilot and the second for the Reconnaissance System Officer (RSO) who manages the surveillance aspect of SR-71. the pilot is obviously charged with flying the aircraft, which is no easy task given the extremely high cruising speed (Mach 3.2/and altitude (24,000m/80,000ft) it operates at. Pilots and RSOs have to wear special pressurized suits and helmets to counteract the g-forces and protect them in the event of ejection at high altitude. This has actually served a few unlucky then lucky Blackbird crews well over the years if the SR-71’s service. The Blackbird took its first flight on December 22, 1964, and its last on October 9, 1999. In between, 32 Blackbirds were built and flown. 12 went down as a result of technical failures and some other spectacular reasons I’ll address later, however, no SR-71 was ever shot down or captured by enemy forces. The Blackbird avoided notice most of the time, but in the rare instances where it was not overlooked it observed a very simple, yet very effective strategy for escape if pursued by an enemy craft or shot at with a missile: accelerate and fly away. You know what? It worked every time! The Blackbird was just too fast for anything to catch it! Unlike the U-2, which was certainly not a slow plane, the Blackbird could outfly any other plane or projectile sent after it. It sure is nice being the fastest kid in class!
Interestingly, two different Blackbirds set the altitude record for sustained flight and speed record respectively on the same day on July 28, 1976. The maximum official altitude was 25,929m (85,069ft); the maximum official speed was 3925.6km/h (2193.2mph), or roughly Mach 3.3. Holy fucking shit.
Even though 12 of the 32 Blackbirds ever made are now in pieces on the ground or in the ocean, there has only ever been one death from a Blackbird crash. RSO Jim Zwayer was killed by extreme g-forces as his SR-71 disintegrated around him and pilot Bill Weaver. On January 25, 1966, the plane came apart in the air during a test flight that took off from Edwards Air Force Base in southern California. Weaver and Zwayer experienced inlet unstart, a phenomenon where the airflow reverses in supersonic flight and sends a shockwave back upstream instead of having air flow downstream as it should. This shock forced Weaver to bank right and attempt to regain the control he had lost, but they spun out and the g-forces knocked Weaver out and caused their Blackbird to be rent asunder. Weaver’s seat never ejected as he didn’t have the chance to bail out considering they were flying at Mach 3.18 and 24,018m (78,800ft) when they experienced the unstart, but somehow his chair came loose from the craft as it split apart and he woke back up on the way down. He was unsure of how he had survived so far, and whether or not his parachute had deployed, but soon he felt the reassuring tug of his chute slowing his descent. Weaver’s pressure suit gave him oxygen enough and more importantly prevented the g-forces from rupturing his insides and kept his blood from boiling because that actually happens at super-high altitudes unless you are in a pressurized environment. He ended up landing safely on a ranch and was taken to the hospital by the owner. Zwayer unfortunately did not survive and was probably killed as the aircraft broke apart.
The days of the Blackbird soaring in the sky may be over, but this impressive aircraft certainly made its mark on the Cold War and other conflicts that required extremely high-flying and speedy reconnaissance capabilities. Most of the remaining SR-71s are in museums across the United States like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Thanks for reading! Be sure to return next week for some musical mania! As always, feel free to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Make some waves,